FGM/C Shifting Sands

Articles on Shifting Sands

FGM data being misquoted to mislead public

Published 15 September 2018 Associated Categories Featured, Responses
FGM NHS data

In Sky TV News’ film clip about the mythical FGM ‘cutting season’ shown prior to my recent live interview, the journalist reported ‘an estimated 23,000 girls are cut every year in the UK. And more that 500,000 victims/girls are at risk in the USA.’

These horrifying but misleading figures will add to the public’s confusion about the practice and its prevalence in the UK and the US.

The film also reported uncritically the new intelligence sharing agreement between the UK/US border agencies. I’ve already questioned the need for it here.

FGM prevalence

In the interview, I tried to explain to a sceptical presenter what the NHS figures actually represent. Perhaps Professor Alison Macfarlane’s recent Guardian letter, might help convince where I failed?

Macfarlane is a perinatal epidemiologist and statistician. She led research in City University’s Department of Midwifery, from 2001 to 2011 and co-authored the report ‘Prevalence of Female Genital Mutilation in England and Wales: National and local estimates’ in 2015. Although retired, she still researchers on a part time basis. So is well qualified to comment on FGM data.

The letter said: 

‘Your report (Intelligence on FGM to be shared by UK and US, 7 September 2018) contains the potentially misleading statement that “Between January and March, there were 1,030 cases of FGM in England, according to the NHS”. This is not a count of the number of girls who were subjected to FGM during the three-month period.’

Instead, the number refers to women of all ages with FGM who were recorded for the first time when accessing the NHS in England for care. Overall, 1,745 women with FGM attended during the quarter, 85% of them for midwifery or obstetric care, and only 20 were aged under 18. Of the 1,260 whose countries of birth were reported, the majority were born in countries where FGM is practised and only 50 were born in the UK.’

Implied here is that care for the remaining 15% may, or may not, have been related to their FGM status. They may have told the questioner that they’d undergone the procedure at some time.

She continued: 

‘There are no reliable data about the numbers of girls born in the UK who are subjected to FGM and it may be much smaller than your article implies. In particular, it would be helpful if the police published more data about their activities in relation to FGM.’

FGM data are not held centrally by police 

Victoria Atkins, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office), admitted in June 2018 that ‘Information on police investigations, arrests and convictions resulting from the publication of the FGM Enhanced Dataset is not collected centrally.’ This is an embarrassing admission considering how determined the police say they are to secure a conviction.

Similar was reported recently in the BJM. Freedom of Information requests were sent to all 45 UK police authorities, asking the number of cases of FGM reported between specific dates, victims’ ages, the occupation of the person reporting and the age and gender breakdown of the police force.

Only six of 45 police authorities initially responded, with three stating that no cases had been reported. The remaining police authorities either provided partial information or declined the request.

Mandatory Reporting

Macfarlane went on to refer to registered professionals’ Mandatory Reporting duty introduced by the Serious Crime Act 2015.  This amended the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. She pointed out that:

‘Health professionals and others are required to report to the police any girl or woman under the age of 18 for whom they provide care, even if she is a refugee or asylum seeker who was subjected to FGM many years ago in her country of origin. No data have yet been published about the overall numbers of girls reported and, most crucially, how many of them have actually been subjected to FGM recently.’

She made other important points in her report’s executive summary:

‘It is not possible to quantify the prevalence of FGM among girls born in England and Wales to mothers from FGM practising countries or assess the numbers of girls at risk on a population level. These are judgments which can only be made through contacts between individual women and relevant professionals and other practitioners.’

In regard to the figures provided, she wrote:

‘These figures may be slight underestimates (my emphasis) as they do not take account of migration since 2011. In addition, as there is some under-enumeration of Black African women in general in the Census (2011) compared with the population of England and Wales as a whole, there may be some under-enumeration of the sub-group of Black African women who migrated from countries where FGM is practised.

On the other hand, these may be over-estimates. In many, although not all FGM practising countries, the prevalence of FGM is lower among women with secondary or higher education than among women with less or no education. Although some women born in FGM-practising countries living in England and Wales may have little education or knowledge of English, many are highly educated and reported English as their first language on their census forms.’

Service planning

She concluded by suggesting in ‘(p)lanning services to meet the needs of women with FGM and assessing whether there is a need for child protection for their daughters, it is important to recognise the diversity of this group of migrant women and to assess their needs at an individual level.’

That advice is mostly ignored when FGM is discussed in the media. As is subtlety and nuance. The intent of journalists, politicians, campaigners, charities and activists seems to be to sensationalise and exaggerate, but not to explain or clarify.

Women and girls and the communities they come from surely deserve better?

My related report about Operation Limelight can be accessed here.

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About the Author -

Bríd is a retired health professional. She started her career as a (volunteer) nurse and midwife in Africa, in Ethiopia and Botswana, where she worked for almost four years. She encountered FGM/C in Ethiopia. She then moved to London where she worked in the National Health Service as a midwife, community nurse, health visitor, reproductive and sexual health nurse and manager over a period of 30 years. She did not encounter FGM/C during that time despite working with immigrant communities who are reported to practice it still. She is puzzled by the current reported prevalence of the practice, the official response and associated activism. And is worried that they might cause more harm than good.

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